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Hearing the wood for the trees

I realised, when I was recently transcribing a recorded coaching session (with the agreement of the client), how tangled and mangled our speech can be. As I listened to the hour-long audio recording, with a highly engaged young entrepreneur, I struggled to type an accurate transcript of what I was hearing through my headphones. I had to start, stop and go back, again and again, to listen to short passages. It was a challenge to get not only all the words but also all the ‘er’s, ‘um’s and ‘ah’s, and the half-begun but not finished words. I was surprised, and even a little shocked, at how great a proportion of what was being uttered was irrelevant noise compared with meaningful speech.

And yet, at the time of the session, I fully understood what the client was saying; my experience was of someone who was lucid and articulate. So, what’s going on here? Why is it that, ‘in the moment’, I was experiencing a clear and uninterrupted conversation flow that was engaging and sensible.

It’s a great example of the difference between perception and reality – between expectation and actual delivery – in communication, and in particular aural communication. In any natural conversation, what we receive as sound waves into our ears is a mishmash of words, vocalised noises, external clatters and ambient sounds. And yet, at lightning speed, and in real-time, we have to decode and understand the sounds, co